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On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Lt. Col. Dave Grossma

November 29, 2014

“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” 



Originally published in 1996 and updated in 2009, On Killing is a thought-provoking examination of killing: the inputs, the outputs, the implications and what it tells us about ourselves. Man has, of course, spent all of history killing other men. Over land, resources, religious and other perceived differences. Yet, Dave Grossman’s central premise here is that it is unnatural to do so—that man’s default programming is a reluctance to kill. Thus, when he is required to do so, as in war, society must construct an apparatus that compels him to complete the act.

To this end, modern military training and technology are designed to enable soldiers (and sometimes police) to quickly overcome this disinclination to kill. They are classically conditioned to override their natural instinct. Beyond training, various other factors can play a role in the ability to kill, including physical distance, type of weapon, perceived threat level, geography, and ethnicity or other factors that create separation—literal or psychological—between the killer and the target.

This book has come under criticism for Grossman’s heavy reliance on one particularly controversial source: war historian S.L.A. Marshall’s research that claims that as much as 75% of active combatants never actually fired their weapons in WWII. This research led to Marshall’s recommendation to the Army that they give more focus to overcoming this disinclination to kill an enemy. Grossman uses it to support his central premise that soldiers are naturally resistant to killing and will take extreme measures to avoid it. While Grossman acknowledges the recent controversy around the research, he doesn’t quite do enough to buttress it.

But to me, the greater reach is in the later chapters when Grossman points to violent video games and popular culture as the main factors for youth violence today. He contends that certain video games condition children to kill by desensitizing them to violence in the same way that military training conditions soldiers. Violent films, for all the reasons critics always cite, also play a role. But this assertion is little more than just that—an assertion, lacking a full examination of the full body of evidence. There are ample counter-examples and complicating variables, not the least of which is the decrease in violent crime in the past few decades—the decades coinciding with the rise of video games.

This book succeeds when it remains at a higher level, discussing the philosophy and morality of killing in war. It is most emotionally compelling as a treatise on the obligation of a country that sends its young men and women into harm’s way to then support them after their return. Grossman cites Vietnam as the most egregious example of a country turning its back on soldiers who had risked their lives for its defense. There is, he points out, always the risk of PTSD brought on by the horrors of war. But there is an even greater psychological toll on a soldier who kills or has friends killed for a cause that is no longer perceived as righteous or even worthwhile. We owe our soldiers the greatest debt not only for the risk they take on themselves, but for what we ask them to do to our enemies.

This is obviously a topic very near and dear to Grossman’s heart. One that he has dedicated much of his life to. This book is very persuasive in parts, but would be stronger overall with more focus on the psychology of battlefield killing. That is where this book seems most knowledgeable, insightful and helpful.

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